Lehigh Valley

East Penn Board approves busing change at Willow Lane Elementary

LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Children who live less than three-quarters of a mile from Willow Lane Elementary School no longer will be bused to school in the 2013-14 school year.

On Monday night, East Penn School Board voted 8-0, with one abstention, to provide bus transportation for all elementary children throughout the district that live at least .75 of a mile from their schools.

That vote follows months of appeals by parents who feared for the safety of their kindergarten to fifth grade children if more of them have to walk to Willow Lane Elementary in Lower Macungie Township.

The district originally intended to no longer offer bus transportation to children who live within 1.5 miles of the school.

East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger used the words "compromise" and "common sense" to describe the change, which he recommended.

He estimated 125 to 140 children who live within .75 of a mile of Willow Lane will not be offered bus transportation, except for special education students or "mitigating circumstances," such as transporting an injured student.

He said if parents feel they live more than .75 of a mile from the school and still qualify for busing, "we will show them enough respect to go out and measure that distance. We've had enough controversy. We're going to be diplomatic. I don't think we want to go to war with some parent over a little bit of distance."

Seidenberger said the change will save East Penn $54,059 in annual transportation costs -- even if it has to share the cost of new Willow Lane Elementary crossing guards with the township, something he said has not yet been decided.

Seidenberger said bus transportation has been available to everyone attending the three-year-old school, but "almost from day one" many parents have been driving their children to school.

"The district did not create traffic issues at Willow Lane," he said. "The onslaught of traffic was not of the district's making. It simply was parental choice not to use the busing services that were made available to parents."

He said parental cooperation will be needed by working with the school principal to reduce traffic at that school, where an estimated 140 cars drop off and pick up children every day.

If the school board had gone with a 1.5-mile minimum for busing, about 330 of Willow Lane's 740 children students would have been affected. Seidenberger said that would have created "an overwhelming situation," which is one of the reasons he did not recommend it to the board.

"It's a very different world than when I walked those distances and my mother didn't seem to be overly concerned about me crossing all those streets," said Seidenberger. "In today's world there is a lot more sensitivity to student safety."

The superintendent said the change does not involve only Willow Lane, but offers busing for children who live more than three-quarters of a mile from all elementary schools, because the district must be fair to everyone. That involves only 20 children at Alburtis, 12 at Jefferson and 9 at Lincoln -- East Penn's other "walking" schools.

He said there will be no additional cost to the district to begin transporting those children next year.

He also said East Penn will continue to transport all elementary students who live along hazardous roads.

Board member Julian Stolz abstained from voting on the busing change, with no explanation.

Board member Francee Fuller commended Seidenberger, his staff and the public for coming up with the solution, noting it was a member of the public who first suggested the district consider ending busing to children living within three-quarters of a mile of the school, rather than 1.5 miles. "This plan demonstrates that concerns have been heard and incorporated," she said.

Only two parents addressed the school about Willow Lane Elementary Monday.

Lee Larussa encouraged the board to support the ".75 resolution," which he called a good compromise that addresses budget, safety and traffic concerns.

"If you decide to eliminate busing, I do highly recommend we go with the .75 option," Susan Coenen told the board.

Sharing results of a survey she did of Willow Lane parents, Coenen showed that allowing busing for children living more than .75 of a mile from the school will mean much less car traffic than if busing is only offered to children living more than 1.5 miles away.

She estimated if the district eliminated busing for students living within 1.5 miles, 245-324 cars would drop off and pick up children at the school every day.

By eliminating busing for those living less than three-quarters of a mile away, she estimated that number will be 89-186 cars a day. She said the average is 138 cars, about the same number that go to the school now.

Based on the 30 percent response to her survey, she said a rough estimate is that only a maximum of 60 children a day will walk to school.

Coenen asked when East Penn's plans for traffic improvements at Willow Lane will be filed with Lower Macungie so township officials can begin their formal review.

Last week township engineer William Erdman told Lower Macungie commissioners that review process may be slowed if East Penn does not submit its plan by Wednesday.

Seidenberger said he doesn't know when Paul Szewczak, the school district's engineer, will be done with his drawings. "He's working on them overtime." He said Szewczak will get those drawings to the township as soon as possible. East Penn hopes to change traffic patterns at the school before late August.

Although Lower Macungie's fire chief is skeptical about East Penn's traffic plan, Seidenberger said in conversations over the last three years, the township's fire department consistently has asked what the district can do about parents driving up the main driveway off Sauerkraut Lane, which serves both the school and a fire station. The school district proposes putting all car traffic on the Mill Creek road entrance, with only school buses using the Sauerkraut Lane entrance.

Coenen told the board that by switching bus and car traffic patterns at Willow Lane, the district will eliminate 10 student drop-off spaces. She said there are 22 spaces now, but only 12 will be in the plan Lower Macungie is waiting to review.

Seidenberger expressed confidence that Lower Macungie will follow-through on pedestrian safety improvements the township plans to make in neighborhoods around Willow Lane. He said he has no reason to believe township commissioners won't approve those off-site improvements, but he'll feel a lot better when they do.

He said if Lower Macungie does not make those improvements --- school zone signals, crosswalks, and crossing guards – "I will come back to this board in late July and recommend we continue busing for all students."

At least one of the five commissioners wanted to be sure East Penn would act to reduce busing at Willow Lane before the township spends money to make those improvements.

Fuller told Seidenberger Lower Macungie has been waiting for the district to make the first move on the issue. She expects the township now will take action very quickly.

Also during the board meeting, the administration handed out "budget books" to the school board and the superintendent said the discussion of the 2013-14 district budget will begin with a proposed 1.69 percent tax increase.

"I'm very confident that number will be reduced," he told the board. "I'm going into this year's budget more optimistic than I've been in a long time. We'll do everything we can to present a budget that is educationally sound but fiscally prudent as well."

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